[ 4 minutes to read ]It ain’t easy being green “I wear rubber boots when it rains.” The kid to my right whispered in my ear. What should I do with that? I turned to the kid to my left and whispered to him, “I like to play in the mud when it rains.” My part was done. That kid turned to the kid to his left and relayed the message, and it kept going like that until the last one whispered to the teacher stationed at 12 o’clock. It’s called the gossip game and it was supposed to teach us some kind of lesson, but I guess it was lost on us. I remember playing a lot of group participation games like that in school.
Around fourth grade, or maybe it was fifth grade, I had the opportunity of taking a creative writing class at a local college. The class was taught by one of the professors there. She went on to get elected to the state house of representatives, so I guess our class was a great success. One day she had us participate in a group brainstorming exercise. She started off with a word and then gave us prompts and we were supposed to respond with the first thing that came to mind.
She was teaching us about the need for conflict in stories and the goal of the exercise was to setup a problem and each of us would have to write a story to solve that problem. The memory tends to fuzz and fray after a few years, so I can’t recall all the details. We ended up with Miss Piggy as a character and she was in trouble. She might have been stuck up in a tree and we had to get her out of the tree in our compelling short stories.
Up a Tree
Our brainstorming session is also what is known as free association, which is a common technique used in improvisation workshops for the training of actors. It is also a psychology tool made famous by Freud. In free association you respond to a word or action with the first word or action that comes to mind. The goal is to get a free flow of ideas without any structure, logic, examination, or judgment of the value of the idea. At the beginning of class, we had no notion Miss Piggy would be stuck up in a tree, but free association put her there by the end.
Free association may have value, like the usefulness of hose clamp pliers for removing hose clamps, but is not equally applicable to all needs. I’m juberous of declaring value of free association for the pulpit and sermon making. Sometimes preachers are quite open about their free association process for developing a sermon. A preacher was driving and got stuck in a traffic jam and had an idea for a sermon on getting stuck in life. Maybe the traffic jam was due to a highway accident and he thought of a sermon on making a wreck of your life. A preacher was shopping and passing all these signs advertising the best sale of the year and he got the idea for a sermon about not selling out.
At other times, preachers don’t take us along the development journey. He reads Luke 15:8-10, talks for a few minutes about the parable, and then announces he is going to preach on the thought: Have you lost your coin? Another preacher reads Mark 5:21-43 and says he will preach for a few minutes on this thought: How to get Jesus to come to your house. A preachers decides he wants to preach on the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is a big subject with a lot of biblical information to work with, but the preacher starts associating. He thinks about what a kingdom is and what a kingdom needs. A kingdom needs a king, so he looks up some verses on kings. A kingdom needs subjects, so he looks up some verses. A kingdom needs laws, so he looks up some verses. A kingdom needs a throne, so he looks up some verses. He putters on along this line until his 45 minute quota is filled.
A lot of preachers use this sort of free association exercise to develop their sermons. They setup the problem their sermon is going to solve. Sunday after Sunday they’re always saving Miss Piggy from the pulpit.
So, what’s wrong with preaching this way? Does free association or similar brainstorming have no place at all in developing sermons? The biggest problem with this approach to preaching is that saving Miss Piggy sermons are not text-driven, they’re idea driven. Rather than starting with the text of Scripture and asking, What has God said?, such sermons start with the free ideas of the preacher to setup a problem to solve that will more or less use some Bible verses. That’s just not preaching in any biblical sense of that term.
Preachers are called by God to preach his word and to work hard in his word and teaching (1 Timothy 5:17). The preacher’s primary job is not solving people’s problems, but preaching God’s book and giving them all his counsel (Acts 20:27; 2 Timothy 3:16-4:2). God’s word is inspired, inerrant, authoritative, and profitable. Your words are not. Your thoughts on how every Christian has an “Amen!” button are worthless in light of eternity. My thoughts on how to always have a smile will not save or sanctify anyone. Even sharing your personal journey is of limited value. Pastor Jason Shults wrote, “Your life story will only lead people to salvation to the extent that it points people to Jesus.”
Of course, preachers get ideas all the time from various circumstances, and I’m not saying there’s no value in them. However, if you have an idea for a sermon, there should be a biblical text that actually speaks to it without ripping it out of context and writing extra stuff in your Bible margins to make it fit. Otherwise, it’s not biblical preaching and you’re just saving Miss Piggy, and I guess that makes you Kermit. So the next time you’re up a tree trying to prepare a sermon, just look for Jesus to come by. It worked for Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10).